A woman making a long-planned trip with her parents and young son says Spirit Airlines kicked the family off the plane when she didn't immediately stop breast-feeding the 2-year-old, who was restless after a long delay.
Mei Rui, a concert pianist and cancer researcher, says she asked for a few minutes to let her son fall asleep in her arms while the plane was still at the gate in Houston and other passengers were walking around.
A Spirit spokesman disputed the woman's account on Monday. He said Rui repeatedly failed to follow flight attendants' instructions to buckle her son into his seat after the plane's door was closed.
The spokesman, Stephen Schuler, said that Rui told crew members they would have to drag her off the plane while she recorded them.
The incident is the latest in a growing series of confrontations between airline passengers and crews, some of which have been captured on video and posted on social media. The dragging of a United Express passenger from a plane in Chicago last April seemed to be a defining event that led to new policies on United and other carriers.
But those policy changes were mostly designed to reduce oversold flights and didn't address situations like the one Friday at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Rui, who came to the U.S. from China at age 14 and has excelled in music and works at a prominent cancer clinic in Houston, said her family boarded Spirit Flight 712 around 5:45 a.m. for the scheduled 6:30 trip from Houston to Newark.
After sitting at the gate for more than two hours during a weather delay, everyone was ordered off the plane. Passengers then re-boarded, but Rui's son was having trouble sleeping, so she started nursing him.
Two flight attendants told Rui her son had to be in his seat. She said she appealed to be given "a couple more minutes" so the boy would fall asleep, then she would buckle him in.
"I did not want to be that parent with the screaming kid," Rui said in an interview.
Passengers were ordered off the plane again, by which time, Rui said, her son was back in his seat. It was too late.
While other passengers boarded for the third time, Spirit employees and several police officers blocked her family from returning to the plane, she said.
Schuler, the airline spokesman, said Spirit was forced to remove the passenger for refusing to follow crew orders to buckle in after the main door was closed. He said police were called when Rui tried to force her way back on board.
"Multiple reports from the crew and other passengers nearby confirm the doors were closed when the incident happened," Schuler said in an email.
Rui called that "a blatant lie. We were stationary at the gate and the plane door was still open so people were walking around." She also said police were called before her family left the plane — they saw the officers at the end of the jet bridge.
Rui said she was going to New York City for a recording with patients that is part of a cancer study. She never got there.
Schuler said as a courtesy Spirit refunded Rui's entire trip and offered to book her on another airline, but she declined.